Writers and Their Notebooks: meg McKinlay

How do published authors use their writer's notebooks?
Meg McKinlay Book Week Awards

Meg McKinlay is, admittedly, one of my favourite Australian children’s authors. She’s written numerous award-winning picture books, including Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros, Ten Tiny Things and The Penguins are Coming. And her thought-provoking and beautifully poetic picture book, How to Make a Bird, is currently short listed in the CBCA Children’s Book Week Awards (only 3 weeks until the winning books are revealed!)

Meg is also a highly acclaimed junior fiction novelist. Some of her books include: Catch A Falling Star, A Single Stone and Surface Tension. Oh, and she’s also written a fabulous stack of chapter books for kids as well.

It’s Meg’s way with words that’s always drawn me into her writing. I love the way she plays with language and creates rhythmic sentences. Her writing is always such a treat on the ear.

I was incredibly thrilled to be able to interview Meg recently and asked her all about how she uses her writer’s notebook.

As I always say, the more we, as teachers, can learn from published authors about how they use their notebooks, the more knowledge and credibility we’ll have to use them authentically with our students.

You can read part 1 of our interview here (but you’ll have to wait until next week to read part 2).


How do you use your Writer’s notebook?

Meg McKinlay where do you get your ideas?
Meg lives in Perth, WA.

I’m a random and chaotic user of notebooks and there’s no particular order to the way I go about things. If I’m not at home in my study, I usually have one somewhere close at hand. There’s so much inspiration out in the world, so many interesting little connections and associations to be made. I find myself wanting to capture things all the time and without my notebook, I’d be repeating things over and over in my head, trying not to forget them. This kind of behaviour can be a problem in social settings!

I also have a separate notebook by my bed at all times. I’m a light sleeper and often wake up throughout the night with funny little thoughts or solutions to plot problems running through my head. I went through an odd process early on where I would write something in the bedside notebook, but then remember it in the morning anyway. And I’d think, “Well, it looks like I don’t need to write things down since I remember them” and the next time I woke up with something on my mind, I’d just go back to sleep. Lo and behold, in the morning all I’d remember was that something brilliant had occurred to me in the night but I had no recollection of what it actually was. So I would start writing things down again, and repeat that cycle.

It took me a while to realise what was happening: that it was the act of writing itself that was enabling me to remember things, to embed them more deeply somehow. So now I always make the effort to turn on the light and start scribbling.

What types of things do you write in your notebook?

My notebook is mostly a place for jotting down what I think of as ‘fragments’ – random observations and lines, things overheard and misheard which seem amusing or potentially fruitful in some way. I don’t really filter what goes into the notebook: if something grabs my attention, I tend to trust my instincts and just scribble it down. There’s no telling what might turn into something. And here’s something you should know: the more you practice this habit of making notes, the more you start to notice the noteworthy. This practice of writing things down becomes a key part of exercising your creative muscles, developing a habit of productive curiosity.

Having said that, I don’t really see that as the goal of my notebook. In general, I don’t consciously write things down for a purpose, don’t necessarily see them as material. It’s just part of the creative impulse, I think: certain things that float into my brain, that hook my own particular brand of weirdness just need to be set down in words. One exception to this is poetry, for which language choice and cadence is so important; I often come up with specific lines that need to be recorded just as they are. I’m never more glad to have a notebook handy than when a poem starts unrolling in my mind.

There are times when I use my notebook in a more extended way. When I’m planning a novel, or early in the first-draft stage, I sometimes find myself turning to a notebook as a place to potter about and play. There’s something about writing by hand that enables me to be more associative; the act of scribbling and scrawling rather than typing seems to free things up in a different way. Perhaps it’s something about the messiness of that space. It feels like a different sort of process and one that’s very useful creatively. Interestingly, I do find that handwriting unlocks poetry for me in a different way as well and often use notebooks to develop these to first-draft stage. I think that has something to do with how very associative my poetry tends to be; working directly onto the computer doesn’t seem to open things up in the same way.

Do you draw in there?

I don’t draw in my notebooks at all. I’m entirely language-focused and not a visual thinker at all. I rarely even doodle; the closest I come is occasionally writing random sentences in Japanese. I like the way the strokes feel – it becomes kind of hypnotic. It really isn’t like drawing though because there’s an order to it, and it is still language after all.

Where do you get the ideas for your notebook?

I have two apparently conflicting answers to this.

The first is: I don’t!

The second is: absolutely everywhere!

By the first, I mean that I don’t really think of myself as someone who gets ideas, but more as someone who collects tiny seeds. My stories never start with an idea as such and plot for me is well down the list of things I care about. I tend to start with a snippet of something – an image or a funny little detail that takes on a certain kind of momentum, piquing my curiosity and accumulating other things around it. I often say to kids that you don’t need ideas; what you need are:

  1. The world around you (which we all have);
  2. Your own particular brand of weirdness (which we all have); and
  3. Questions (which we all have).

Which brings me to the second part of my answer, which is that the things in my notebook – the jottings or seeds or fragments or scribbled bits of random or whatever you want to call them – come from absolutely everywhere. One of the first poems I ever wrote grew out of the time I thought I’d seen a speed camera next to a bus-stop, but as I grew closer, realised it was a tall, thin young man sitting with his legs akimbo. Instead of shaking my head and driving directly to the optometrist without giving it another thought, I rolled it around: imagine if you looked like a speed camera? What would that mean for your life? Do people avoid you just on instinct? Can you turn it to your advantage, make a living out of it somehow?

A mistaken speed camera- from wondering to publication.

My picture book DUCK!, which is about a duck who runs around yelling “DUCK!” in an attempt to warn other animals that something is falling from the sky, grew out of a newspaper article. I was doing research for a novel about Skylab, a space station that fell to Earth in the 1970s, when I came across a headline that read “Twenty Minutes to Duck Skylab” and for just a split second read it as the ‘wrong’ duck and imagined people hurling feathery creatures at the space station in an attempt to protect themselves. Instead of just correcting myself and moving on, I grabbed onto that little misunderstanding and let myself mess about with it, asking what sorts of consequences there might be when these two ducks get muddled.

Just this morning, someone expressed doubt about something I’d said, and when they said, “Look, I’m a bit sceptical”, my internal monologue said, “And yet I am correctical.”

I love this little wordplay, which came out of nowhere and everywhere. Who knows where it’ll end up, if anywhere. But for now, it’s in the notebook, just in case.

These moments are absolutely everywhere; you just have to tune into them in a different way. We all have these funny little flashes that pass through our minds and what creative people do is let them linger there rather than dismissing them; we roll them around in our brains and our notebooks, seeing if something shakes loose.


Wow! I find it absolutely fascinating to hear how writers use their notebooks in the real world. Meg has been incredibly generous with the insight she’s provided into her writing process. Imagine if every student in our classrooms was as curious and playful with words as Meg is!

Note: There’s so much goodness in this interview that I’ve spread it over 2 blog posts to help you think about the learning in this half of the interview first. You’ll have to wait until next week to read the final part to our interview (and yes, it’s as good as the first!).

What questions would you like to ask a published author about how they use their notebooks? Let me know in the reply section below or join in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group.

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